The Science of the Brain Freeze or Ice Cream Headache

Posted by Eric Troy on 24 Mar 2012 18:31

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It's called a brain freeze or an ice cream headache. I have no doubt, however, that it became more common after the invention of the Slurpee.

There is something about the ice cream headache. Maybe you know what I'm talking about. It is nothing short of agonizing, and yet as kids, we would purposely eat our ice cream cone too fast to bring one on. And then scream, partly in pain and partly with the thrill of it. I guess it's sort of like a roller coaster. You are in control. It is a well-known phenomenon that pain is more easily tolerated when it is known to be temporary and its cause known to be benign. And, it's one of the few instances where you can intentionally cause yourself intense pain of a temporary nature. Too bad about the brain damage, though…

Why Do You Get Brain Freeze When You Drink a Slurpee?

The Slurpee, Froster, or ICEE are the true champions of the brain freeze. The Slushee could never equal the ICEE in terms of brain freeze power! All you have to do is suck down an Icee too fast and you're almost guaranteed a satisfying, and yet not so satisfying, cold headache. What's funny is we've got myths about the greatest brain freeze product ever invented, and we've got myths about the physiological origins of the brain freeze itself. But is it really a cold headache?

Most people realize that it has something to do with all that cold stuff hitting the roof of the mouth. But it doesn't just cause pain in the roof of the mouth. It causes a full-blown skull-exploding headache in the forehead and temple area. How? Here are some explanations. People will repeat one of these to you as if it has been rigorously proven, but…nah.


Looking for a more efficient brain-freeze inducer?
The Slurpee is your drink of choice, then


Looking for a more efficient brain-freeze inducer?
The Slurpee is your drink of choice, then

The brain freeze is caused by eating ice cream (or Slurpees) too fast in Warm weather

This is only partly wrong. I don't need to tell you it's caused by eating too fast! We all know that. The myth is that it has something to do with warm weather. That is, say, if it were 65 degrees out you'd have a hard time getting a brain freeze, and if it were winter, you couldn't get one at all. I beg to differ. Yes, you can. I know there has been some research to suggest they don't happen in the winter, but these were early studies and they were wrong. You just have to show due diligence, my friend, if you're crazy enough. Besides, this explanation is not an explanation at all, as it doesn't explain the physiological basis of the pain, and is more of a "by the way."

It may not even be absolutely necessary to eat your ice cream or drink your Slurpee very fast. A study by Janus Kaczorowski, and her daughter, Ice Cream Evoked Headaches, states "In contrast to previous studies our results suggest that ice cream headache can be induced in cold weather even in subjects who eat their ice cream at a slow pace."1

I don't know about the slow pace thing, but I'd say that it is people who are a bit more sensitive, and not the norm.

The cold from the ice cream or cold drink directly cools the brain, by conduction

This is one of those really hare-brained theories. The brain is not directly affected, it's only called a 'brain freeze' because that sounds cooler than a 'cold headache'.

The Nerves in the roof of your mouth over-react to the cold and warn the brain of impending frost

This explanation says that the cold itself causes the nerves in the roof of your mouth to "over-react" and send a message directly to the brain. The theory doesn't say why these nerves send a message to the brain, but perhaps it is to tell the brain about the cold weather in the mouth, lest it affects the brain itself. The brain then expands all the blood vessels in your head, to warm it up, so your brain doesn't freeze, you see? And this rapid dilation of the blood vessels causes the intense pain. Something just doesn't sit quite right with this. You be the judge.

The temperature sensitive nerves in your palate and throat react, and the pain in the head is referred pain

Now I think we're getting somewhere. This explanation recognizes that the temperature sensitive nerves and the "pain" nerves in this area travel the same paths. According to Migraine by Talley, et al.:

"The cold substance, which could be rocky road ice cream or a 711 slushy (sp), provokes the sensitive temperature fibers of the second, maxillary division of the trigeminal nerve and the glossopharyngeal nerve in the throat so that certain persons develop this predictable, short-lived, but disturbing experience. Pain and temperature fibers travel together through the same neuronal pathway and the "cold" can become "pain" very quickly."2

That sounds more scientific and really seems to be honing in on the thing, but it still is lacking a bit of oomph, if you ask me. Not very satisfying at all, to us true Geeks.

Relieving the Pain With Warmth?

I'll tell you what doesn't sit right with me, being a person who has experienced a lot of brain freezes (yep, on purpose, for science): These explanations have it that the pain is a direct result of the cold. Or, at least, a direct reaction to the cold in the mouth. Therefore, the explanations also assume that you can relieve the pain by warming the palate in some way — with your thumb, your tongue (which is presumably cold as well), warm water, etc.

Here is the problem. We are talking about a pain experience that usually doesn't last longer than about 30 seconds at the most, and then it's gone, and you're wolfing down your ice cream again. Very rarely does it last a long time, say up to 2 or 3 minutes. Finding a 'cure' for such a transient pain is pretty much impossible. See, you'll never really know if you "cured" the pain or it just ran its course. Even with variable, but short, lengths of time…it's still variable, and therefore you can't attribute the cessation of the pain, reliably, to any reaction on your part. Not only that, but you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how to prevent one on your own, and most will take smaller licks from the cone, or smaller bites, or stop aiming the straw right at the roofs of their mouths and sucking too fast. The cure is prevention; you don't need a cure.

What's more, different people experience pain in different ways. How many people would intentionally bring it on, like me and my friends did? In my subjective experience, nothing had any effect on it. It just went away after a short time, on its own, regardless of what you did. Now, it could be that it is not the cooling, but the warming that causes the pain, as the following explanation reveals.

The blood vessels in the roof of the mouth contract, and then quickly dilate, causing referred pain

A normal reaction to cold is for blood vessels to restrict. So, when you stuff your face with ice cream or suck down a Slurpee too fast, the blood vessels in the roof of your mouth clamp down as a result of signals sent by nerve clusters in that area. Then, when you remove the cold stimulus and things start to warm up, they open back up or dilate. The vessels dilate very quickly, in fact, to more quickly warm the area. This rapid blood vessel dilation causes a nerve signal which is experienced as intense pain, and this pain is referred to an area that corresponds to where the cold was applied. So, it has everything to do with the reaction of the local vessels, which can cause referred pain elsewhere. But it's not the mouth getting cold that causes the pain, it's the warming up. So, trying to hasten the warm-up could not cure the headache!

Yet, I've seen both this explanation and the "warming" cure given in the same paragraph. Doesn't make sense. If anything, it would make it worse, because the blood vessels, in response to the warmth, would just dilate their little selves like gangbusters, and you'd still have your brain freeze.3

Facts About the Brain Freeze

We actually still do not really know the physiological cause of the brain freeze. That's the true explanation. We know what triggers it, but we don't know the nitty-gritty of it. The only thing we can be sure of is that if you want to avoid it, don't eat your ice cream too fast, or suck down your Slurpee too fast. A few tidbits:

  • Only about one-third of people experience the brain freeze. I swear I thought it was almost everybody.
  • About ninety percent of migraine sufferers are susceptible to it. However, it does not seem to be a consistent trigger for actual migraines. The literature is inconsistent on this.
  • Different names for a brain freeze are ice cream headache, Slushee headache, cold headache, cold-stimulus headache, and sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia.
  • There have been documented cases of ice cream headaches lasting up to five minutes…ouch!

Which is more likely to cause a brain freeze: hard ice cream on a cone, or soft-serve on a cone?

That is a tough one. On one hand, soft-serve ice cream is served at a higher temperature than hard ice cream; about 25°F (-4°C) as opposed to 5°F for hard ice cream. Less cold should equal less headache. However, it is easier to eat soft-serve quicker, taking huge licks of the stuff, or even biting off half of a cone at once, which I've seen some weirdos do. And it's still plenty cold enough. So I don't know, why don't you experiment with this and fill me in?

A milkshake falls somewhere in the middle, depending on how it is made. If it comes out of a soft serve dispenser, which is pretty cold, but thick, you may not be able to drink it fast enough to get a really good brain freeze. A more traditional shake tends to be a bit less cold, owing to the additional blended ingredients. Incidentally, not everybody in America calls a milkshake a milkshake. According to Richard and AnnaKate Hartell in Food Bites: The Science of the Foods We Eat, New Englanders might call it a velvet, frappe, or, in Rhode Island, a cabinet.3

1. Kaczorowski, Janusz, and Maya Kaczorowski. "Ice Cream Evoked Headaches (ICE-H) Study: Randomised Trial of Accelerated versus Cautious Ice Cream Eating Regimen." British Medical Journal: BMJ 325(7378) (2002): 1445-446. Web. <>
2. Daniel, Britt Talley. Migraine. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2010. 178-79.
3. Hartel, Richard W., and AnnaKate Hartel. Food Bites the Science of the Foods We Eat. Dordrecht: Springer, 2008. 167-69.

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